Monday, September 26, 2016

I Don't Think So, Tim

The AV Club recently asked the question: Why has time forsaken Home Improvement?

I would disagree with that sentiment.

First off, I love the Onion, but the AV Club has long seemed to me to be a bastion of lemon-sucking sourness, a cadre of kids too cool for school yet still latched onto geek culture. There hasn't been an overrated musician so obscure they couldn't fawn all over or a mainstream hit they couldn't piss all over, all while smiling through a glaze of, no, honest, we're cool geeks, here. I'm...not a fan

As such, I disagree with their assessment of Home Improvement.

Home Improvement, for those sad enough to not know, was a 90's sitcom--lasting from 1991 to 1999 and being a top 10 hit each of those years, #1 for many, could easily be considered the 90's sitcom--about Tim Talyor, a handyman who hosts a show about (wait for it) home improvement projects. The setup was largely a parody of This Old House, the staid PBS series about home renovations, but included the host's family life as well. Throw in a wife and three boys, a level-headed if naive assistant on the show, and a gimmicky neighbor, and you had a formula for an eight-year successful run.

And "formula" is the right word. The show managed to base itself with two different things. The first was the mechanics of the home improvement show, where a lot of the catch phrases ("More power!") and physical humor came into play. But also it dealt with the friction between quintessential "male vs female" arguments; Tim, who had arguably one of the manliest jobs in existence, would often find himself confused about the vagaries of the fairer sex.

Episodes followed a pretty standard arc--Tim would do something stupid; his wife Jill would get mad; he would talk to his assistant, Al, or his neighbor, Wilson, about the situation; he would then try and correct the problem in the least effective way possible while still succeeding. The other story for each episode would focus on the show, usually building a project that would in some way blow up or hurt someone.

It sounds pretty tame by today's standards, but I maintain that it actually was a touchstone for the current state of comedy--not just on television, but in general.
  • Situation comedies have always struggled with the "man vs woman" dialogue. Either the issue was studiously ignored, or it was done with the subtly of a frying pan to the face (see: any Normal Lear production). Home Improvement managed to straddle like a colossus between two ideas--the "old" notion that men needed to cling to manly things if they wanted to retain their identity, and the "new" notion that men should make an effort to communicate with women about things that often go overlooked. They managed to do this and make it funny. In today's age of hyperawareness, it's a little refreshing to see the writers do justice to both
  • They acted like grownups about serious issues. This was the 90s, so they had the necessary Very Special Episodes, but they were generally done with both respect to reality and a wink to the audience. Special mention goes out to the episode about pot--rather than treat it as a demon weed, they emphasized that getting into pot will probably make you lazy and disinterested, and for a kid trying to get into college on a soccer scholarship it's probably not the best idea--let alone the legal ramifications of it. (Given Tim Allen's real-life issues with drug abuse, this was probably the best way they could handle it and not be roaring hypocrites about it.) 
  • As formulaic as it was, it did the formula well. Even well into its eight year run you could see the situations a mile away and yet they usually managed to make it fresh. Sure, there were down periods and occasional recycled scripts, but you could count on one hand the number of sitcoms that don't do that. And even the formula wasn't that bad--Jill, the wife, was wrong plenty of times.
The show, of course, wasn't perfect. Casting three boys as their children was probably a mistake; not only did it leave little room for character development, it seems like a lost opportunity to get a daughter in there, given the show's emphasis. And formula is formula--even a good one gets old after eight years.

Still, I think the show doesn't get nearly as much credit as I think it should. It certainly wasn't everyone's cup of tea, but it was #1 for a reason.

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